The Rochester Mirage. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 13, 1871. Caption: “Extraordinary Mirage, Showing the Canada Coast of Lake Ontario, as seen from Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, April 16th” [Photos provided by Michael Nighan]
The morning of April 16, 1871 dawned sunny and cool in Rochester, with a light veil of fog over Charlotte. Although a bit early in the spring for a Sunday junket, rising temperatures during the day persuaded many city residents to take a carriage ride or the streetcar to Mount Hope cemetery to spend a few hours communing with nature among the hills, ravines, budding trees, and head stones of one of America’s first “rural cemeteries,” places designed to centralize urban burials in a park-like setting outside of the city proper.
The destination for many of the day’s visitors was a tall, square observation tower perched atop Mount Hope, the hill after which the cemetery had been named. At 200 feet above the Genesee River, Mount Hope was second only to Cobb’s Hill as the highest point in the city, and the added height of the tower presented sweeping vistas in all directions, including excellent views of Rochester, Lake Ontario, Irondequoit Bay, and the lands south to the Bristol hills. Known to the locals as the “Fandango,” the tower had been built the previous decade and had quickly become a popular site (and sight) for Rochesterians and visitors alike.¹
One such visitor, Miss Mattie Morrison from Ohio, left a detailed description of her July 1864 visit to Mount Hope and the Fandango:
Leaving this spot where costly marble piles reign in profusion, we proceed to the tower. There are crowds of visitors upon its top, but nothing daunted, we begin to climb the winding stairs. There was a constant stream both up and down, so that our progress was not very rapid. But we reach the top at last. And securing as comfortable a position as possible in the crowd, we leaned against the railing and looked below and upon the surrounding scenery and landscapes… Gradually, the crowd dispersed from the tower, and there seemed a few quiet moments to spend in the luxury of looking upon nature’s varied beauties and Yankee improvements without the disturbing influence of a fluctuating crowd.
Some eight or nine miles to the north of us appeared, at intervals, a leaden-hued belt edging the amber horizon. I judged it to be Ontario. A gentleman standing near remarked that the lake appeared very rough today. “Yes, I see the white caps” was my uncle’s response. I turned and looked at them both and could not restrain a laugh, “See the white caps, uncle; why I can scarcely see the lake”….Another gentleman, not belonging to our party, hearing what we said, stepped forward and offered me a small hand telescope…Adjusting the telescope properly, I looked in the direction of the lake. There were white caps, sure enough, and a steamer chartered for the day as a pleasure boat had just left Charlotte harbor and soon rolled and pitched about in a manner I thought would conduce but little to the enjoyment of most of the pleasure seekers on board.
But getting back to that spring day in 1871, the low fog bank over Lake Ontario became denser and slowly moved south until by 4:00 in the afternoon it had blotted out the city north of Main Street and the countryside to the shore of the lake and beyond, creating what an imaginative person might see as an endless expanse of gray rolling water. Then, to the amazement of the Sunday strollers at Mount Hope, a shimmering image of the Canadian coastline, 60 miles across the lake materialized along the horizon.² As word of the mirage spread through the city, thousands rushed to the cemetery, crowding the hillsides and jamming the Fandango, for a view of the phenomenon. An eyewitness described the scene as follows:
As if suddenly by a great tidal wave, old Lake Ontario had burst her confines and buried the entire north part of the city; and where generally thousands of buildings and churches are visible, nothing but the blue waves of the lake could be seen…..Away to the right and left, as far as the eye could see, was the Canada coast (where) could be seen her shores, studded with mountains, hills, valleys, inland bays and lakes, rivers and forests; and so perfect at times that the sun’s rays, shining on the barren sand cliffs, would illuminate their sides like dazzling mountains of glass.
While given only cursory coverage in the next day’s local papers (which seems strange given the large numbers of spectators involved), the “Rochester Mirage” was considered newsworthy enough to warrant a highly-imaginative half page illustration in the May 13, 1871 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, published in New York City.
The mirage soon disappeared, but the Fandango endured, at least for a few more years. Constructed of wood, painted and scored to look like stone, it became so dilapidated that it was eventually torn down. No records tell of who built it or exactly when. No records tell how soon after 1871 it was removed, although we know it went to pieces some time prior to 1885. Although there are references to remains of the Fandango still being visible in one of the cemetery’s ravines, in reality all traces have long since vanished. However, a flight of stone steps leading to the hilltop likely date from the time of the tower’s construction.
The Fandango’s site on the heights of Mount Hope (Section I of the cemetery) is now simply a flat, grassy, open space bordered by the graves of the Bowens, the Simpsons, the Redfields, and perhaps most appropriately, that of Gideon Cobb, who gave his name to the only taller hill in the city.
1. Not just a Spanish dance, a “fandango” is also a pejorative term meaning “a foolish or useless act or thing.” Clearly not all of Rochester residents were impressed by Mount Hope’s observation tower.
2. The optical phenomena, known as a Fata Morgana is a type of mirage which results from an atmospheric inversion of a layer of warm air over a layer of much cooler air. Such an inversion can cause light rays to be bent as if passing through a huge lens, projecting magnified images many miles away.
UPDATE: UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER STUDENTS INTERVIEWED MICHAEL ABOUT HIS RESEARCH AND CREATED A PODCAST
ALSO ON MT. HOPE CEMETERY